Alabama vs. Auburn: Top Storylines Heading into Critical SEC Matchup

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Alabama vs. Auburn: Top Storylines Heading into Critical SEC Matchup
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Football fans in the state of Alabama love their Iron Bowl. In fact, dozens of fans have been waiting in Auburn since the weekend for Saturday's much-anticipated clash between No. 1 Alabama (11-0) and No. 4 Auburn (10-1), who moved up two spots in the most recent BCS standings.

Auburn associate athletic director of communications Kirk Sampson shared this photo of fans lining up in their RVs on Saturday afternoon:

The fans have good reason to be excited. Each of the past three years, the winner of the Iron Bowl has gone on to win the BCS National Championship, with Cam Newton leading Auburn in 2010 and A.J. McCarron guiding Alabama in each of the past two seasons.

This year, a trip to the SEC title game and perhaps the BCS National Championship Game is on the line. Let's take a look at the key storylines for both sides heading into this high-profile rivalry game.

 

Crimson Tide Rolling Along

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Nick Saban's group in Tuscaloosa remains as one of five unbeaten teams in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision, ahead of No. 2 Florida State and No. 3 Ohio State in the BCS rankings.

Seeking its third straight national championship, Alabama has used the same formula that has led to so much success in the past six seasons. It starts with a menacing defense, as the group is ranked No. 1 nationally in points allowed per game (9.3) and No. 3 in yards allowed per game (263.9).

Alabama has been remarkably stingy this year on defense, especially since claiming a 49-42 victory against Texas A&M in the second game of the season. In the nine contests since that shootout, Alabama has given up just 50 combined points.

Senior linebacker C.J. Mosley has established himself as the leader of the Tide defense this year and is expected to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft. But Alabama will have its hands full against a potentially explosive Auburn offense that ranks among the nation's best.

 

Auburn in Midst of Magical Season

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A year ago, the Auburn Tigers were fresh off a 49-0 loss in the 2012 Iron Bowl, a defeat that sent them to a disappointing 3-9 record for the year.

Now they are just two victories away from playing for the BCS National Championship. It's certainly been quite a turnaround under first-year head coach Gus Malzahn, who was at Arkansas State in 2012 following three seasons as Auburn's offensive coordinator.

Of the 10 wins on the season, though, none could trump the drama of last week's victory against Georgia. Auburn was on the verge of losing a contest after holding a 20-point lead, but Ricardo Louis came down with a 73-yard touchdown catch in the final minute after two Georgia defenders collided, giving Auburn a thrilling 44-38 victory to set the stage for the Iron Bowl.

Auburn's resurgence under Malzahn can be quantified by the numbers, as the team has improved across the board statistically. But it's also the mentality, as Malzahn told his team it would be preparing for the "biggest turnaround in college football," and he hasn't disappointed.

 

Alabama QB A.J. McCarron Stays Consistent

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He might not have the raw athleticism of other top college quarterbacks like Jameis Winston or Johnny Manziel, but there's been no better winner in football the past three seasons than Alabama's McCarron. He holds a 36-2 record as a starter and has the chance to lead his team to straight titles.

In 2013, McCarron is putting together a Heisman-worthy campaign with 2,399 passing yards (218.1 per game), 23 touchdowns and five interceptions, while he has some major weapons in the backfield as well.

Alabama always has a potent one-two punch at tailback, and this year is no different with sophomores T.J. Yeldon (1,022 yards, 12 TD) and Kenyan Drake (661 yards, eight TD) leading the way. McCarron has distributed the ball pretty evenly throughout the passing game, with Kevin Norwood, Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones each having major contributions this year.

But Alabama clearly has a defense superior to Auburn's, as the Tigers rank tied for 30th in scoring defense this year, giving up an average of 22 points per game. Vice versa, Auburn features more firepower on the offensive side ball.

 

QB Nick Marshall Leads Potent Auburn Attack

Nick Marshall hasn't been bad for a former University of Georgia defensive back turned junior college quarterback. Malzahn recruited him at Garden City Junior College in Kansas last year after Marshall was kicked off Georgia's teams for violating team rules.

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When Malzahn got the job in Auburn he brought Marshall with him, and the transfer vaulted from fourth on the depth chart to No. 1 in time for the 2013 season opener. This year, he's proven to be an effective dual-threat option with 1,530 passing yards and nine touchdowns through the air while piling up 823 rushing yards and nine more scores on the ground.

Auburn ranks second nationally with 320.3 rushing yards per game, led by junior Tre Mason who has 1,153 yards and 17 touchdowns this year. Cameron Artis-Payne (568 yards, five TD) and Corey Grant (557 yards, five TD) have also given Auburn two solid running backs to help change the pace.

Auburn's strength is on offense and Alabama's is on defense, so it will be interesting to watch when these two units go head-to-head on Saturday in what should be one of the most entertaining Iron Bowls in years.

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